Hey Mr. Spreadsheet-Analyzer, your core values DO matter

General attitude about company core values at the highest levels: tack a bunch of nouns and adjectives on the wall, and then never update it or refer to it again — unless, of course, you’re trying to dismiss someone. “Listen Dan, you’re just not in line with our company core values listed over here on this wall.”  

The easiest way to realize that company core values don’t matter is that HR owns it. Nothing owned by HR is something an executive cares about. Executives look to HR for compliance, busy work, and getting people in trouble when those people are less worthwhile to them. It’s really that simple. It’s a joke that we call HR “human” in any way.
The second thing you need to realize is that companies essentially have one major responsibility, that being “make money for others.” We assign lots of moral high ground and “mission/vision” to corporations, but they honestly could care less. Provide purpose for people? Forget that. Provide money back to me, baby!

Now, of course, this is supposedly changing. The Millennial Mindset! In reality it’s going nowhere. Company core values will continue to be owned by HR, which means executives will ignore them. The notion of “company core values” will be referenced a few times at an all-hands meeting, but none of those stellar adjectives will be lived on a day-to-day basis. It’s all about chasing the cheddar, digging for nickels in the couch cushions of your vertical, and pounding your chest about how busy and important you are. That’s work, writ large.

As you chase profits, think about your core values too. Yes? 

But what if this company core values rubbish — “Ain’t that some HR thing, Terrence? I’m a revenue-generator!” — really matters?

Company core values and emotional agility

Here’s a cool interview with Susan David, a Harvard Medical School faculty member who wrote a book on emotional agility. “Emotional agility” is a cringe-worthy term in a corporate context, because it references concepts we’re supposed to believe are not important to work. In reality, because work is made up of human beings, it’s a massively emotional place. Unfortunately, we try to make everything logical — “process for the sake of process,” essentially — and that leaves many people feeling frustrated. In all honesty, it leaves some people equating work with chimpanzee rape.

Anyway, here’s the money shot from that article:

Really having a clear sense of what it is that is important to us is absolutely critical. Values are often seen as being cheesy, the kinds of things that we have on walls in organizations but don’t really believe in or do anything with. Yet what’s fascinating is the amazing work showing that when people have values front of mind, it is protective in things like transitions. If you’re going through a difficult period at work, you’re a first-generation college student, you’re having a struggle in a relationship, knowing how you want to be in the world protects us from social contagion. It protects us from a lot of the mindless comparison that we often do. And it’s really a fundamental part of our ability to be well and happy and productive people. 

The phrases that pop for me are “transitions” and “knowing how you want to be in the world.” Let’s move forward.


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Company core values and transitions

Scroll up to where I said “chasing nickels in the couch cushions of your vertical,” which is the “strategy” many executives embrace at their company. This is important to know and understand. One of the reasons work sucks for a lot of people is that stuff is always changing. There’s no real sense of priority aside from “make more money” and everyone’s always chasing the next new shiny thing. Hell, we even created a semi-positive word for that: “pivot.” Whenever anyone says “pivot,” smash them in the face, breaking their nose. All they mean is “completely adjust everything you thought you were supposed to work on because this thing over here might make us 10 extra pennies.” This is a big favorite of “sense of urgency” managers.

Now look at the pull quote above. See that word “transitions?” Well look, things are transitioning at work all the time. New projects, new people, new “priorities,” new objectives, etc. If transitions are everywhere, you need some values. Maybe company core values? Obviously work happens at an individual level, but wouldn’t it be nice to know that you worked for a place with some company core values to guide you through all the nonsense that inevitably pops up? Feels like it would be nice.

Company core values and negative thoughts

According to Cleveland (City of Champions!) Clinic research, humans experience 60,000 thoughts every day. 95 percent are habituated, and 80 percent of those are negative thoughts. In short: we walk around with a lot of baggage and negativity every day. We try to strip that element away from how we discuss work, which is a farce. People are sad and negative at work all the time, even though we’re supposed to be heads-down, target-hitting, and adhering to process. In some ways, IMHO, the whole idea of “leadership” is just about figuring out how to manage these negative thoughts in your subordinates.

I try to think about work in different ways, and I also try to call out some managerial BS we’ve all experienced. If that kinda sorta interests you, I do a newsletter every Thursday. Feel free to join up.

If there’s so much negativity, then wouldn’t company core values be important? I’m over here grinding on some spreadsheet. I look up at the wall and it says “We are committed to having fun and building relationships.” So I smile, nod, and go talk to Tom in the CFO’s office for a bit. That’s a trite example, yes, but company core values can provide a path through some of the muck.

Company core values and the bottom line

Does it matter to money? Are we gonna get richer off having company core values? Fatter bonus for me?

There is some evidence. Mission and vision may lead to increased profits, as does a “compassionate” work culture. There’s also some evidence that companies with more empathy make more money, too.

If you just do an eye test on it, some of the big names that always pop around “company core values” are Netflix and Google. Both of them make a ton of money. Now, you can come at me and say “It’s because of their product!” You would be right. But all those people grinding on that product and that business model? Don’t you think it’s helpful to them to have some kind of company core values guiding from the wall? It seems like it would be.

In reality, the idea of company core values won’t get very far so long as HR owns it — but hopefully this humble blog allowed you to understand its relative import.

What else would you add on company core values?


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